Back when the ’60s became “the Sixties”, the Village Voice, an alternative weekly New York City newspaper, was the place to find out what was happening, or where a “happening” was, and Richard Goldstein was there to explain. He was the very first genuine rock critic for a major publication, before rock ‘n’ roll or rock music was considered a mass-culture art form worthy of notice.
In his touching, funny, deeply felt memoir, Goldstein leads us like a Bronx pied piper from his working-class home in a public housing project to the coffee houses of Greenwich Village, from Haight-Ashbury to Monterey Pop, from the “Good Vibrations” of southern California to the violence outside the 1968 Chicago Democratic convention.
Another Little Piece of My Heart had me laughing out loud on the first page. It is 1962; Goldstein is 18 years old. About to start at Hunter College in the Bronx, he says he’ll be “the first member of my family to learn the difference between Hegel and a bagel.”
As a member of Goldstein’s generation from another outer borough (Brooklyn) who similarly attended a no-tuition college in the City University of New York system, and who similarly was a bookworm learning about German philosophers as well as rock ‘n’ roll, I felt a surge of empathy. But when taking the subway from my bourgeois neighborhood to the Village and its implied freedom, I did not, like Goldstein, have to carry my sandals in a paper bag. He did — for fear of getting beat up on route from the Bronx by the “guys who guard the gates of masculinity.”
Goldstein’s evocation of that era — now a half century in the rear view mirror — is spot-on and visceral. His parents might not have been hip to existentialism or the Beatles, but they were good secular Jewish liberals, up to a point. His mother “instructed me to call colored people Negroes, adding ‘Remember they’re human too.’ This wasn’t exactly the Gettysburg Address, but it was a departure from the spirit of the project.” His father, a postal worker, worried that Negroes would elbow their way past the Jews up the middle class ladder.
Goldstein quickly aligned himself with the ideals of the Civil Rights movement, as well as Pop Art and Andy Warhol, along with pop music. A true pioneer, he created a column in the Village Voice called “Pop Eye”. His journey is a closely observed, fervently lived “I was there” account of the drugs, the politics, the sex the music, and the poetry in rock lyrics.
When he covered one of the pivotal protests – the takeover of Columbia University by students rallying against expansionist, racist plans by that institution – he noted that after hundreds were chased by cops he saw “dozens of sandals littering the sidewalk. Students had jumped out of their shoes to get away.” Sandals now had political as well as cultural currency.
The memoir tells of Goldstein’s encounters with such seminal figures as Jim Morrison, Brian Wilson, Abby Hoffman, Susan Sontag and others whose ideas infiltrated the minds of his generation. He also introduces an important editor, Clay Felker, the man from the Midwest who helped birth the “new journalism”. Felker edited the Sunday section of the New York Herald Tribune, then the stand-alone magazine New York, and eventually for a brief time, the Village Voice itself. “A man of monumental enthusiasms,” Felker had the good sense to recognize Goldstein’s place in the vanguard of change and gave him a chance to chronicle it.
Goldstein owns up to being wrong about the Beatles Sgt. Pepper album (he didn’t love it), and wrong about a track on the Doors debut album, “Light My Fire”, but he was right about a lot of bands, like the Beach Boys. Among his adventures, he hung out with them on a trip from Los Angeles to the desert. Goldstein’s wife Judith told him later than Dennis Wilson had hit on her but was too stoned to do much. Driving back from Palm Springs, a clearly high Dennis suddenly exclaimed “Whoa, the road is doing weird things.” In the car, Goldstein thought to himself: “if I survive this I promise never to do drugs again.”
As the title of the book makes clear, one figure meant a lot to millions, and especially to Goldstein: Janis Joplin. Hearing her sing at the Monterey Pop festival in California during the “Summer of Love”, 1967, he writes: “her voice stunned me with its primal drive… Hearing her… was like meeting my most guarded self. Her voice was the liquid inside the balloon that I struggled to prevent from spilling out.” He identified with her neediness and recognized the craft behind the shriek. Eventually, they grew to be sort-of friends. Late one night he took her to Ratner’s, a Lower East Side Jewish deli that was a New York institution. Then they strolled the empty streets at dawn.
Still, Goldstein is careful to show how no writer can really be a true peer of any huge pop star without becoming a sycophant. He is terrific, too, at describing how confusing it was back then for traditionally trained reporters (he had attended Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism) to cover rock and revolt. He was taught to distrust hype, but felt great enthusiasm for the hyped and the rebels. Yet he was supposed to be objective.
At the Village Voice, “the detachment I was so proud of the mark of my rationality in the face of mental goo, was beginning to seem like the greatest of all illusions. There was no way to justify remaining outside the battle.” By the time he faced police brutality in Chicago, and the trial of the Chicago Seven, he could no longer hide behind a press card. Just as important, the Village Voice owners would not provide its staff with health insurance. He quit, and went to Felker’s New York for a salary and benefits. He did return as arts editor to the Village Voice only after Felker and his backers took over the newspaper.
Because this is a book about the ’60s, Goldstein’s valuable later writing on AIDS and gay activism is not included. He does talk about his current gig, teaching at the City University’s Hunter College. Once, in his seminar on the Sixties. he played John Fogerty’s “Bad Moon Rising” for his class. A student who had heard the song as a child said he “thought the refrain went, ‘There’s a bathroom on the right.’”
I laughed out loud again. Truth is, such moments make writers like me (not to mention Creedence Clearwater Revival fans) feel old. I’m just glad Goldstein has put the “story behind the story” in a real, print hardcover book while such Luddite leftovers still exist.